Monday, July 17, 2006

Idealism vs. Realism

Robert Wright writes in the NY Times this weekend about the false choice between "Idealism" and "Realism" in American foreign policy, and calls for a new foreign policy approach that he terms "Progressive Realism":

During the post-cold-war era, the security landscape has changed a lot, in some ways for the worse; witness the role of “nonstate actors” last week in India, Israel and Iraq. But this changing environment has a rarely noted upside: It’s now possible to build a foreign policy paradigm that comes close to squaring the circle — reconciling the humanitarian aims of idealists with the powerful logic of realists. And adopting this paradigm could make the chaos of the last week less common in the future.

How is that to be done?

First, the word signifies a belief in, well, progress. Free markets are spreading across the world on the strength of their productivity, and economic liberty tends to foster political the economic realm, progressivism means continuing to support the World Trade Organization as a bulwark against protectionism — but also giving it the authority to address labor issues, as union leaders have long advocated. Environmental issues, too, should be addressed at the W.T.O. and through other bodies of regional and global governance.

...the national interest can be served by constraints on America’s behavior when they constrain other nations as well. This logic covers the spectrum of international governance, from global warming (we’ll cut carbon dioxide emissions if you will) to war (we’ll refrain from it if you will).

We need multilateral structures capable of decisively forceful intervention and nation building... the slaughter in Darfur, though a humanitarian crisis, is also a security issue, given how hospitable collapsed states can be to terrorists. But if addressing the Darfur problem will indeed help thwart terrorism internationally, then the costs of the mission should be shared.

...[but] resources aren’t infinite, and the world has lots of problems...focusing on national interest helps focus resources. Notwithstanding last week’s carnage in the Middle East, more people have been dying in Sri Lanka’s civil war than in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But given the threat of anti-American Islamist terrorism, forging a lasting two-state solution in the Middle East is a higher priority than bringing lasting peace to Sri Lanka.

I don't agree with everything that Wright says about what our priorities should be, but I very much agree with his overall ideal. For the last two decades we have been presented with what Wright correctly calls a false choice between idealism and realism, as if our foreign policy should either be entirely motivated by humanitarian and democratic ideals or entirely motivated by defending our own narrow interests. This is not only an inaccurate description of our range of choices in action, but also of the history of American foreign policy. At times we have acted with predominately one concern or the other, but never have we acted entirely out of selfish or humanitarian motives. But because we seem constrained to think of foreign policy in one term or the other, we find now that there is a backlash against the "idealistic" foreign policy of the neo-conservatives thanks to the misadventure in Iraq. But this is an incorrect portrayal of both neo-conservatism and realism.

For one, neo-conservatism was wedded with extreme national self-interest in the invasion of Iraq. Many of the neo-conservatives were committed quite openly to the idea that regime change in Iraq would result in a fledgling democracy almost automatically, with minimal effort and commitment on our part, and that such a change would result in a "beachhead" of democracy in the Middle East that would eventually transform the entire region. But the neo-cons were allied with realists and nationalists in the Bush administration, men such as Rumsfeld and Cheney, whose motivations were neither so idealistic nor airy. They saw the invasion as a chance to eliminate a lingering threat to the United States, a chance to put a favorable government in place on the border with Syria and Iran, and a chance to secure a steadier supply of oil.

Nor would a return to realism necessarily prevent another foreign policy fiasco. For an example of realism gone wrong, we need only look at Vietnam. The intervention in South Vietnam was couched in language of the defense of democracy, but in truth it was mainly an effort to prevent the spread of communism. At the time, intelligent and reasonable men believed that to allow communism to spread from one country to the next, even in what were to us backwater, under-developed nations in Southeast Asia, was a prelude to it's eventual spread to the borders of America. The spread of communism had to be fought everywhere at once, with as much might as we could summon, or we faced being swamped by it at home. But this proved to be a terrible fallacy. We "lost" South Vietnam, but did not lose even the rest of Southeast Asia, let alone any country nearer and more crucial to us. Realism, which sought to defend our narrowly defined interests, had mistaken a non-threat for a world-shaking threat, and paid with the loss of tens of thousands of soldiers, and hundreds of billions of dollars.

Clearly then, realists and idealists are equally prone to making mistakes when they make foreign policy decisions that are based on incorrect assumptions.

Wright's "new" approach, though he calls it "progressivism", is actually more pragmatic than anything else. Clearly, there are times when the United States must act in it's own interests. But at the same time, credibility is valuable in diplomacy, and nothing gives us more credibility than standing up for freedom and democracy the world over. And frequently we have the opportunity to act in both our own interests and the interests of others around the world; Afghanistan and Iraq have been opportunities to further democracy, even if we have so badly botched them thus far. What is required then is a careful balancing of self interest, morality, cost and capability. In any given situation, what is the cost of action in our own self interest? To the cause of democracy? What capability do we have to take an action? What are our chances of succes, and what will be the result if we fail? Depending on the complexity of the situation, these questions-especially the one about consequences-may not be easy to answer. But they must be asked, and answered to the best of our ability, before any action can be justified. Otherwise we court unintended consequences and risk the loss of credibility or the failure to protect ourselves from risk.

This new approach would have saved us from the debacle in Iraq, as Wright points out. The threat to our security was not enough to justify pre-emptive war, and the potential cost of occupation has been too great to justify action on humanitarian principles alone. But progressivism does not foreclose all action on a particular sitaution. We could have renewed our pressure on Saddam Hussein, steadily weakened him until rebels that we aided toppled his regime, and advocated a new, more democratic government. In the end the result might be the very same chaos we see now...only without us having spent hundreds of billions and lost 2500 American soldiers in the process, and without us damaging our credibility by using the rhetoric of freedom to justify a war after the fact that was justified in it's inception by the language of national security.

A new approach to foreign policy is not a panacea to our presently incoherant foreign policy approach. Merely paying lip service to a new approach is not enough. As with all foreign policy and diplomacy, intelligence (the kind you obtain, and the kind in your head) is necessary. Most importantly, we must understand that much of our power around the world comes from the ideals we represent as a liberal democracy, and that we cannot afford to take any action without considering how that action either enhances or tarnishes our position as the pre-eminent beacon of freedom the world over.

It is my hope then that in our rejection of neo-conservatism we don't turn towards an equally inconsistent "realist" approach. The answer to many of our foreign policy problems lies in an approach that reinforces our position not only as the world's greatest economic and military might, but as a symbol of the great hope of democracy to the rest of the world.

1 comment:

adam said...

That's a great article. I think many are searching for an alternative to a reactionary-isolationism response to neoconservatism and this is a good starting point at least.